MCN Commentary & Analysis

Book Review: Mike Nichols: A Life

When does a biography sing?

When it makes you feel like you have a personal stake in the story.

Autobiography and Industry Insight books written by William Goldman, Steven Soderbergh, Julia Phillips, Linda Obst and John Gregory Dunne have done that for me and stand with the most important books in my movie library.

There are a bunch of books with more detail or equally powerful insights, books by Lumet and Mamet and Sondheim that are must-reads. There are biographies that are ultimately about paradigm shifts, like Tony Hendra’s remembrance of the Lampoon group (that dominated comedy for decades) or Goldman’s “The Season” or David Puttnam’s “Movies & Money,” which is as relevant today as when it was when published in 2000 as it would also have been in 1970 or 1940.

The Life Observed biographies rarely ring my bell in this way. They are overly controlled by the focus of the bio or too interested in eye-catching side stories, never capturing the work of the artist that made anyone willing to buy the book. Shawn Levy did 500 pages on DeNiro and I can’t help but think that even as great as it is, it will be better when revised after DeNiro’s passing.

Sam Wasson’s “Fosse” is a favorite. I am a Fosse person. And Wasson takes us through his youth and then the book explodes as he could interview more and more people who are alive and participated in the work from the mid-60s until his passing in 1987, on his way to work.

Mark Harris has a different story to tell with Mike Nichols. As much as Fosse’s problematic youth formed him, the Mike Nichols story, as told by Harris, is steeped in his youth right to the end. Aside from Angels in America (the history to which Harris has unique access), Nichols’ final decade of work feels like an afterthought. (A big part is that Nichols’ passion may have faded.) The heart and soul of the book is the kid, from landing on Ellis Island to the Upper West Side, suffering emotionally while succeeding madly, pushing away opportunity until it could not help but catch up with him.

I don’t know how much access Harris had to Nichols for the book. They spent years in a close social and professional circle. But Nichols’ passing and the announcement of the book were close. In any case, Harris does a remarkable job piecing together a million details. At times, I wondered whether Nichols’ attitude posited in the book about this or that was his own or assembled from the perceptions of others. Still, it is always compellingly offered and enigmatic, like the subject.

But what is so sticky about this glorious read is that the reader is offered so many perspectives. It’s like being at a week-long wake where you get to have an in-depth conversation with every mourner who knew the man. Who knew him best? Did anyone know him best? Did Diane Sawyer know the same man that Elaine May knew? Was he the same director in the theater as he was on a film set? Unlike directors best known for their musicals, the standards for judging a mastery of stage drama is more subtle… What made Nichols so consistently good?

The book offers endless answers… Mostly answers you didn’t know you wanted but can’t believe you lived without for all these years. And Harris deftly “asks” the same questions repeatedly through the book, mirroring in the writing the natural human tendency to gain perspective over time. So you keep learning what the 50-year-old Mike Nichols thought of that 25-year-old Mike Nichols and then what Mike felt about his life at 60… and 70… and 80.

“Mike Nichols: A Life” is also a great view into something I have said ad nauseum for years… that “they” know. There are moments, small ones, where Nichols struggles for the answers to whether something is working or why it is not. But in the vast majority of situations, he knew. And so did many colleagues. Perhaps it was that razor-sharp insight into what was not working and the ingenuity to find a fix, or more importantly, a way for his actors or writers to ease into a fix, is what made him so damned good.

The Mike Nichols history in that last thirty years is a series of touchstones for me… both new work and old. I won’t bore you with my experience of Nichols, but I somehow saw Day of the Dolphin in a movie theater when I was 8 or 9 and I was at the closing night of the last show Nichols ever directed, “Betrayal,” when I was 49. I spent a couple years trying to convince Roger Ebert that the movie closest to Fight Club (which he hated at first) was The Graduate… and think I succeeded. (My take on the intense violence of The Graduate is confirmed in this book, repeatedly. Thumbs up!) But I never met Mike Nichols.

Watching his sit-down with Jack O’Brien in Becoming Mike Nichols, shot shortly before his passing, I felt the ambivalence that I often feel with people of accomplishment of a certain age. As a stranger, do I have anything to offer them in the experience of probing from a stranger? Truth told, I feel it with some who are not strangers. Will my odd type of excavation add anything to the bigger picture? Jack O’Brien’s certainly did.

There was a period when I tried and failed to convince Scott Rudin to sit down in front of a camera. I’ve broken bread with him and we got on well, sharing our love of theater, but no luck. If he dies without a proper sitdown with someone he trusts but doesn’t just kiss his ass, it will be a tragedy.

Mark Harris’ work here is, for me, his very best. He, of course, wrote two other historic looks at the industry, “Pictures at a Revolution” and “Five Came Back,” which remain beloved in film culture. Many of the skills that make Harris’ Nichols bio so strong were on display in those books. But again, the magic line is emotional, which is what Harris solved in this book.

As in Nichols’ work, this is a book of small movements – often as simple as the placement of a prop or finding a few words that change the direction of a performance – and massive swings, high and low. It is a portrait of a man 100% clear and 100% unknowable. Of Nichols’ absolute arrogance and crippling humility.

And Harris doesn’t chase rainbows here. Nichols’ sex life is a clear example. From the outside, Nichols doesn’t seem like a skirt-chaser. But he clearly was. (Or maybe just a skirt-tugger, as women fell into his orbit.) One can understand why women were attracted to Nichols on a number of levels. But other famous, brilliant, wealthy, outwardly sexually uninteresting men have one or two famous dalliances with bold-faced women. Nichols was a busy, busy man. Catnip for a certain range of women. (Coo coo ca choo, Mrs. Robinson.)

One of Nichols’ primary interests, as an artist, was sexual pairing and politics. But Harris does not get caught up in trying to explain it to the reader. He just offers facts amidst so many more elements of Nichols’ life. And it was the right choice for two reasons. One, because what happens in intimate relationships is not as knowable as other parts of his life. And two, as the subject of Nichols’ work, the question of mating always took the sex part for granted. From Carnal Knowledge to Primary Colors, career bookends about men who follow their penises endlessly, it’s never about the sex, but the reasons why people want, or don’t want it.

Based on relationships I have with people who worked with Nichols, the book can be overly generous about some of Nichols’ downside. But the sting of moments in which I know this story or that does not last long. Harris does not shy away from Nichols’ moods. And in many cases, he offers context that doesn’t excuse events, but instead offers legitimate perspective.

Only a handful of film and theater artists in any generation have had the kind of amazing career that Nichols had. He kept coming back when others faded. He misstepped and then found a path that freed him up to get back to work and to work his way out of the funks. He had at least eight truly great films, half-a-century as a theater director of great skill and acclaim, and the early career as a groundbreaking performer. And he was a worker to the end, even when he was living the upper crust.

I loved the book. I loved the experience, personally and professionally. It was the very opposite of a ratfuck. And it goes right up there on the bookshelf with the very best industry biographies of the last fifty years.

3 Responses to “Book Review: Mike Nichols: A Life”

  1. Glamourboy says:

    Maybe Dave’s elegant words could go on a future cover for this book…”It was the very opposite of a ratfuck.” Niiiiice.

  2. David Poland says:

    The reference to “ratfuck” is because it was one of Nichols’ favorite usages.

  3. pmn says:

    You have sweet talked me into picking up this book David.
    Great write up.

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